Mixed Reviews Part 2: “Rope”

Rope is the DVD I can’t get rid of. There’s nothing wrong with the DVD itself. It’s not scratched. There’s no damage to the case.  Yet my local used book/movie/music store won’t accept it. On one or two occasions, I waited a few months before trying again; that worked once before with a previously rejected book. Then I gave up and thought, “Maybe I’m just meant to keep this movie.” The reason I even own Rope in the first place is because I read about it and wanted to see it, but I couldn’t find it anywhere except for a cheap copy on Amazon. (It was probably on Netflix, but it wasn’t worth getting a subscription.) Again, I don’t know why that is. It’s not a terrible movie; it’s just that it’s an Alfred Hitchcock movie that isn’t Psycho or Vertigo-caliber.

Hitchcock Rope poster
That horrible tagline doesn’t help.

Rope is based on a play of the same name, which is based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. In the movie, two Harvard students, Brandon and Philip, strangle their classmate David with a rope simply because they consider him a lesser human being. They hide the body in a trunk, then host a dinner party with the food served on top of it, buffet-style. The guests include David’s father, his aunt, his fiancée and his fiancée’s ex-boyfriend. The last guest is Rupert, the prep-school teacher who inspired the students’ adoption of the “man and superman” philosophy.

Saying that Rope has a better premise than The Birds is an understatement. But then, I never understood how the latter attained “classic” status in the first place.

There’s also more going on beneath the surface. The “making of” featurette on the DVD includes an interesting interview with the screenwriter, Arthur Laurents. In it, he beams at the fact that a movie was made in 1948 about what everyone involved with the movie referred to as “it”: homosexuality. The implication is that Brandon and Philip have a relationship and Brandon used to have a relationship with Rupert. Cary Grant was offered the role of Rupert but he declined because there were already rumors that he was bisexual in real life and he didn’t want more fuel for the tabloids, although that could just be a rumor itself. The part was ultimately given to the decidedly straight James Stewart. Grant does show up in the movie, if only as the subject of conversation between David’s aunt and his fiancée. They adore him.

The biggest reason why Rope is not a great movie is because except for the last 15 minutes, it’s missing the kind of urgency that makes a good thriller. Part of the problem is that you know that Rupert is going to save the day simply because he’s played by James Stewart. Even Stewart thought he was miscast. It’s not that he’s a bad actor. He’s charming, but from the dialogue it seems like Rupert should be more suave. In fact, there are certain points in the movie where you get the sense he’s silently asking himself why he’s there. He’s much better toward the end, when his character plays the detective.

The other problem I have with Rope is more of a personal one. Rope is a movie for English majors. I found myself distracted by the possible symbolism of the unspeakable act of murder as the then-unspeakable act of gay sex. There was also the remembrance of the homosocial triangle theory. This is the literary tradition of having two men, usually enemies, use a woman to communicate with each other. (The example at the time was Dracula, Van Helsing and Lucy Westenra/Mina Harker.) In Rope, Philip has the woman’s role. You see, I can’t turn off the English major switch in my brain. I usually prefer movies that make me think, but this time I found myself wishing for a spontaneous car chase or an explosion that would give me a break from thinking for 30 seconds.

Rope had a lukewarm critical reception in 1948, but it’s become more appreciated over time, probably due to a greater appreciation of the gay subtext. If it wasn’t an Alfred Hitchcock movie, I’d say it deserved a remake, but we all know what happens when you remake Hitchcock. Still, despite Rope‘s intriguing story and solid performances, it’s not the kind of movie you own. It’s the kind of movie you watch on TCM on a late night. You don’t forget it, but you don’t need to revisit it either unless you’re writing a six-page analysis for your Gender in Literature class.

Maybe that’s why the used bookstore won’t take it. At least I can count on Goodwill.

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